Candide: Or, All for the Best is Voltaire’s most widely known work and one of the most widely read pieces of literature written in the French language. Voltaire invented the philosophical tale as a means to convey his own ideas and, at the same time, entertain his readers with satirical wit and ironic innuendo. Candide (the name refers to purity and frankness) is the tale’s main character. He embodies the philosophical idea of optimism that Voltaire intends to oppose.
As the story begins, Candide is forced to leave Wesphalia because he has been caught kissing the baron’s daughter, the beautiful Cunegonde. Candide is driven from the splendid castle of the Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, where Doctor Pangloss has been Candide’s tutor and has taught him that all is well in this “best of all possible worlds.” Little time passes before the naïve Candide finds himself conscripted into the Bulgarian army. As a soldier, he witnesses firsthand the terrible atrocities of war. Escaping to Holland, he miraculously encounters Pangloss, who is himself in a pitiful physical state. From the ever-optimistic philosopher, Candide learns that his former home in Germany has been burned to the ground and that all of those inside have been massacred by the advancing Bulgarian army.
Voltaire continues to narrate his story with a cascade of adventures. He nonetheless keeps close to the principal reason for telling his tale: discrediting the metaphysical idea that all that happens on earth has been determined by Providence and therefore must be judged as being for the good of humankind. Pangloss, who has lost part of his nose and one eye to syphilis, continues to insist that all is going well in spite of overwhelming adversity. Candide and Pangloss travel to Lisbon, where they arrive just in time to experience the famous earthquake of 1755. Not only are they caught in Portugal during this natural disaster, but they also become embroiled in the Inquisition. Only by the reappearance and intervention of Cunegonde is Candide saved (Pangloss is a presumed victim of the Inquisition). In rescuing Cunegonde, however, Candide must kill an Israelite and the Grand Inquisitor.
Candide, Cunegonde, and an old woman (the daughter of Pope Urban X) flee to South America. Even there, they are tracked by the agents of the Inquisition; Candide and Cunegonde must separate or risk being burned at the stake. Candide takes refuge in Paraguay, the kingdom of the Jesuits, where “Los Padres have everything and the people have nothing.” Candide comes upon Cunegonde’s brother among the Jesuit leaders. They quarrel because Candide, in spite of his humble origins, insists on marrying the young baron’s sister. Candide wounds him, apparently mortally, and again takes flight with his valet and companion Cacambo.
Throughout all the journeys of Candide, who next discovers Eldorado (the city of gold and precious jewels), Voltaire delights in attacking the excesses of humankind—from the brutality of wars to the ignoble institution of the Inquisition. In order to emphasize tolerance and moderation, Voltaire presents characters that are immediately identified as representing extreme philosophical positions: Pangloss (who reappears at the end of the story in Constantinople) holds tenaciously to an absurd optimism, and Martin (Candide’s companion on his trip back to Europe and on to Constantinople) affirms with equal stubbornness that there is little virtue and happiness in a world filled with evil.
While in Venice, Candide learns that his once-beautiful Cunegonde is now washing dishes on a riverbank for a prince in Turkey. From Cacambo, he hears that Cunegonde has even grown ugly and ill-tempered. Still, being an honorable man, Candide intends to marry Mlle Cunegonde, and he sets off immediately for the Turkish city. While en route, he finds Pangloss and Cunegonde’s brother (resuscitated) among the galley slaves on the Turkish boat. Candide still possesses some of the diamonds that he carried away from Eldorado and is able to buy his friends’ freedom. As chance would have it, all the characters of this tale end up living together on a small vegetable farm somewhere on the outskirts of Constantinople. Candide’s money is exhausted, Cunegonde grows more unendurable, Cacambo curses his fate as a vegetable seller, Pangloss despairs because he is not teaching in a good German university, and Martin persists in seeing humankind caught in either the throes of distress or the doldrums of lethargy. Candide does not agree, but he no longer asserts anything. Instead of arguing metaphysical and moral questions, he heeds the advice of an old man who tells him, “work keeps at bay three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” From this lesson, Candide concludes “that we should cultivate our gardens.” In the end, the little farm yields well, and all eat candied citrons and pistachios. Voltaire ends the tale, on a note of neither pessimism nor optimism, with his characters working and living in peace together.